The flexible packaging market is booming, with a recent report by Smithers Pira predicting growth at an annual rate of three per cent – estimating the overall industry to be worth an impressive USD248 billion by 2020. While the food industry dominates the market in terms of usage, the beverage sector is increasingly turning to flexibles for a variety of products.
Products such as wine, juices, frozen cocktails and energy drinks are increasingly moving into pouches – particularly in single serve format. Consumers on the go demand portability and convenience, and a pouch has the advantage of being both of those things, in addition to being acceptable in certain places where glass, for example, would not be – such as sports stadiums or the beach.
As pouches have evolved, areas such as ergonomics have been addressed, with various shapes and sizes developed to enable a better grip – be it for a child with smaller hands, or for a sportsperson running around a track. Usability has also been improved. At their inception, most pouches in the beverage industry were accompanied by a straw – used to puncture a small foil covered hole, common on single serve cardboard cartons. Today, recloseable caps have been introduced, allowing consumers to return to the product if they wish.
Laminates have also evolved, with many flexible options featuring films that prolong the shelf life of the contents within by effectively protecting against oxygen and light contamination. Several different foils and coatings have been developed to ensure beverage quality and freshness, and the extended shelf life is a major benefit to retailers.
In addition to enhanced freshness, preservation of taste and increased shelf life, pouches have a wealth of advantages for brands and manufacturers. For a brand manager, a beverage pouch is like a blank canvas; there is a large surface area to work with, as opposed to a curved surface on a can or bottle, which offers more opportunity to stand out on shelf through striking graphics as more of the packaging is visible.
Pouches also offer enhanced sustainability credentials, as they can be created using less energy than competitor materials.
They also offer considerable savings as, being more lightweight than other traditional forms of beverage packaging, they use less material for the same volume of liquid filled. This lightweight element means that shipping costs are far lower, due to decreased unit weights when filled. For unfilled SKUs, according to the Flexible Packaging Association, a staggering 26:1 ratio applies when compared to transporting glass bottles by the truckload. The savings from a cost and supply chain/logistics perspective are significant.
Product proliferation must also receive a mention, as many manufacturers will be required to produce a variety of flavours and variations of a beverage product. The flat packed, lightweight nature of pouches means that significantly more stock can be held in a much smaller area, thus streamlining the production process.
There are many variables that must be taken into consideration when choosing a coder for pouches. One is line speed. For example, thermal transfer overprinters (TTO) are more limited in terms of speeds when compared to continuous inkjet (CIJ), but the amount of information a manufacturer needs to print will also be a factor. For a simple lot or batch number at high speeds, CIJ will be the better option, but if a 2D barcode or QR code is required then TTO comes to the fore.
2D barcodes and QR codes are becoming more commonplace in beverage packaging, as it is possible to include a great deal of product information within them – such as information relating to the provenance of the ingredients. There is one major beverage company, producing fruit juices, that is working towards farm to fork traceability. Eventually, consumers will be able to scan a code and be furnished with information down to the row on the farm a carrot came from.
The environment in which you’re working will also influence which system is best and, importantly, which ink is most suitable. Cold fill environments with high condensation, for example, will require a specialist ink to cope with those particular surroundings.
Finally, printing on pouches, for the most part, is carried out before the pouches are filled, but for those manufacturers that have to code post-fill, CIJ is able to do so using a fast drying ink suitable for non porous substrates. The biggest challenge is that filled pouches tend not to have a uniformed surface to present to the printer. Manufacturers must ask, is there a surface that is going to be relatively uniform if I have to code once this product is filled? In the case of one Videojet customer, it was a very small window of opportunity which saw the printer coding onto the bottom of the pouches – sending ink upwards – as this was the only relatively uniform point available.
Manufacturers are moving into pouches more and more, and this is set to continue as the variety of flexibles increases along with functionality. Manufacturers, however, are also continuing to work with other forms of packaging, such as PET and metal. Looking again at product proliferation, there will be a large variety of flavours to consider in most instances, potentially across multiple substrates – which means many changeovers are required. Amid frequent changeovers, systems – such as CLARiSUITE software, compatible with Videojet equipment – must ensure the correct codes are placed in the correct location, on the correct product and packaging. Productivity gains such as minimising printer set up time and reducing operator intervention are further benefits.